Failed Franchise Cornerstone Sounds Off on Bulls

Chicago Bulls

Getty Lauri Markkanen #23 of the Utah Jazz reacts to game action.

Negative reinforcement is a powerful motivator, and the Chicago Bulls may be feeling the effects of that early this season. In truth, they may have noticed it last season as they watched several players they traded go on to make the exact kind of leaps they needed to succeed.

Forwards Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen both took major steps forward for their respective new teams — the Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers — after often looking lost with the Bulls.

Markkanen opened up about his experience to Shams Charania of The Athletic in a November 8 interview.

“It was a tough year. And I think it got to a point that it wasn’t that much fun anymore, the last two years in Chicago,” he said. “So it was a big thing for me to be in Cleveland and such a fun year that we have had with that group of guys. Now it’s just so much easier to go out there and play the game I fell in love with.”

Markkanen’s Plight

The final year in Chicago was statistically the worst of Markkanen’s career as he put up career lows virtually across the board. He averaged 13.6 points (on a sparkling 61.9% true shooting) and 5.3 rebounds while appearing in 521 games but logging just 26 starts after earning at least 50 starts in each of the previous three seasons.

There was a lot of uncertainty from the moment he arrived, with Markkanen playing under three coaches and two front offices during his time in Chicago after being acquired in a draft night trade that sent fellow former Bulls star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

As much as anything, Markkanen says he did not necessarily help the situation.

“I’m a person who always looks in the mirror first and tries to figure it out. So, when it was hard I think I just put even more pressure on myself to make the next play. Like, ‘If you don’t get as many shots, then you better make these shots count’. And then, it was just a vicious circle trying to figure it out.”

The Bulls sent him to the Cleveland Cavaliers in August 2021 in a three-team deal that helped them land forward Derrick Jones Jr.

In September 2022, he was traded again, this time to the Utah Jazz for Donovan Mitchell.

Instead of commanding a tank job, Markkanen has been one of the orchestrators of the best team in the Western Conference in terms of record at 9-3. He leads the team in points and rebounds while ranking second behind rookie Walker Kessler in blocks.

From Finnisher to Paw

Markkanen’s story is hardly a unique one for the Bulls. Butler has since led multiple teams to the playoffs, including leading the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals in 2020. And Carter is fresh off signing a four-year, $50 million contract a year ago.

The Bulls are at a crossroads with third-year forward Patrick Williams. A slow start has given way to a more productive recent stretch.

But it wasn’t long ago that Williams sounded like Markkanen as a Bull.

“I try not to really think too much,” Williams said before his turnaround, according to Cody Westerlund of 670 The Score. “I think when I think a lot out there is kind of when I don’t play too well. I kind of overthink the little things of the game that just comes natural to us. So just kind of going out there and playing off instinct.”

He’s caught minor fire over the past handful of games and it was evident in his postgame media availability that he felt the corner had been turned.

Williams thanked his teammates for keeping him motivated.

“I felt it was just I was going to figure it out,” Williams said. “I was going to figure it out. I think to get to this point in my career – to the NBA or whatever the case may be – I think I’m just a ‘figure-it-out’ type of player.”

The Bulls certainly have to hope that he truly has figured it out, though they know it is still a work in progress.

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